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Lou Harrison and the Great American Piano Concerto

The music of Lou Harrison represents a rare opportunity for advocacy. To begin with, he is unquestionably a major late 20th century composer, and yet little-known. Also, he is both highly accessible and stupendously original. And he is the composer of a Piano Concerto as formidable as any ever composed by an American.
The Harrison Piano Concerto (1985) was the centerpiece of Post-Classical Ensemble’s sequence of three Harrison events over the past two weeks in DC. Why this American masterpiece is so little performed is a good question. There are a number of obvious answers, beginning with its elusive style – like so much of Harrison, it cannot be “placed.” It’s long (half an hour). It’s majestic. The first movement is a sonata form eschewing directional harmony. The second movement is a scherzo-like “Stampede” – a tour de force for the soloist, whose part includes a wooden “octave bar” for rapidfire octave clusters on the black or white keys. The slow movement is sublime, the finale brief and ephemeral: a dissipation into the ether.
To American ears, the Harrison concerto suggests wide horizons and open space much as Copland does. And yet the Largo’s hymn-like solemnity specifically evokes Brahms’ D minor Piano Concerto. For Spaniards (like my friend Angel Gil-Ordonez, the Ensemble’s splendid music director), the Stampede sounds Spanish: Angel discerns tablas and flamenco rhythms. North Indian and gamelan influences are unmistakable. And yet these all-over-the-map points of reference meld. The post-modern fusion of “East” and “West,” today so often clumsily pursued, is here a refined product of profound cross-cultural immersion.
Harrison wrote his Piano Concerto for Keith Jarrett – in whose hands the knitted piano textures sound Jarrett-like. Ben Pasternack’s reading, in DC, was revelatory. This astounding artist (is there a more commanding American pianist of his generation?) brings his characteristic gravitas and probity to bear. The gamelan textures are subtly shaded. The speaking silences are served. The virtuosity of the Stampede is effortless and complete. Pasternack also improvised a first movement cadenza.
Here is a concerto that self-evidently should be performed by our major orchestras. Audiences would be duly stimulated and impressed. Our three DC events – a film, a lecture-with-gamelan, a concert with commentary and film clips – were attended by more than 1,200 eager listeners. I say “eager” because when opportunities for interaction are seized (one-third of the Saturday night house stayed late to talk), you learn what listeners are hearing and thinking.
Chatting over brunch on Sunday, I found myself musing on the importance to performing arts organizations of obtaining “something back” from their audiences. The first step is to furnish something fresh to react to. The second is to explicitly invite a response. This initiates dialogue. It fosters community. Post-Classical Ensemble’s three-day Stravinsky Project, next month, incorporates an intimate immersion experience with scheduled opportunities to mingle with the participating pianists and scholars.
Concurrent with our Harrison events, the National Symphony presented a subscription program, on the Kennedy Center’s ongoing “Indian” festival, comprising music by Roussel and the Indian tabla virtuoso Zakkir Hussain. Two of three concerts sold out.
Orchestras are in trouble today. Forced to change, they face polar options: retrenchment or innovation. This past week in DC, innovation proved a winning ticket for all.


  1. Joe Townley says

    YouTube has a wealth of American piano concertos posted by various individuals that listeners can peruse. One can survey this vast literature (I wouldn’t be surprised if roughly 2000 have been written in the last 100 years or so) and yet I find only two regularly appearing on concert venues: the Gershwin Concerto in F and the MacDowell No. 2 in D Minor. Why is this? It’s clear that nothing the best American composers have written will ever get near the Rachmaninoff Paganini Variations or his 2nd and 3rd Concertos in terms of popularity, much less receive a cursory performance every now and then, and again I ask “Why is this?” Is it that the average listener is just not attuned to cerebral American music? Or do they just long for the sweeping Romantic melodies that flow from Rachmaninoff and Tchaikovsky? I’m one who fits in the latter category. I’m working on my Second Piano Concerto now which is cast in a definitive Romantic mold–the first movement is on YouTube. I say this not so much for self-promotion but just to make the point that there ARE composers out there who believe that the diatonic has not yet been completely exhausted–that it still hold vast potential for the right talented composer to mine. I may not be that composer but I’m sure (s)he’s out there somewhere, just fast asleep.

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